Education as Politics

Anyone who wants to write about Swedish education must not only move back and forth between what has happened in the political and scientific spheres, but also in teacher training and in schools. More than a particular scientific field, this is an environment, which is why you should talk about school reforms before talking about education as a science in Sweden. As I was a student at a teachers college in Gothenburg in the early 1970s, I can attest that the education being taught was the progressive kind, where it was pointed out that ‘lectern teaching’ was old-fashioned and that the teacher should only be supportive. It was taught that the approach was at least as important as the content, that the teacher should be responsible for the ‘whole’ student and that “the student should be the focus”. Progressive pedagogy assumes that students will voluntarily seek knowledge if they do not have homework and exams. This is because it is fun to learn. The students’ knowledge will be especially valuable because it grows based on their own experiences and needs. Different types of standardised tests and examinations should be abolished and only diagnostic tests retained. Assessments should be given as late as possible. To require proper behaviour or to correct essays with red pencil is perceived as a threat to the student’s right to express and develop their personality. Donald Broady, and others, went even further in the radical education magazine, Krut, which announced a ‘hidden’ curriculum. Society is allegedly using schools to indoctrinate, control and manage students, and ultimately guide them into capitalist wage slavery. The teacher’s task was to alert students to this oppression, so that they could resist it. The theorist who was all the rage was Paolo Freire, who spoke about education as raising awareness and rebellion. Foucault described education as the exercise of power and social control, while Bourdieu warned of education as privilege and the sorting of students. Dewey spoke of education as fostering democracy and Bernstein about working-class children’s linguistic codes being as valuable as more developed language. None of these theorists talked about subject knowledge having an intrinsic value.

The triumph of radical pedagogy was to coincide with a major expansion of the school system in Sweden. There was a political agreement to extend compulsory schooling, but not to remove the functioning secondary school that used an entrance exam and a final exam. A high-school teaching body unanimously warned that the quality would drop if the high school merged with the elementary school to form a comprehensive school. But the merger still went ahead, after an investigation by Stellan Arvidson as principal secretary, with the elementary school teachers’ support. Thus began the long series of decisions in which Swedish politicians ignored the quality of education and teachers’ experiences, emphasising instead greater social equality as the school’s goal. The decision to introduce primary school, as the new type of school came to be known, was taken in 1962 and was supplemented by a new curriculum for primary schools in 1969 under education minister, Olof Palme. The school would help to abolish class society and be a spearhead for the future. In 1969, primary schools became examination-free, assessments would be given on a few occasions, and the concept of ‘passing’ as a requirement to move to higher classes was abolished. The number of hours of academic study was cut down, while more time was allocated to practical subjects and vocational orientation. Schooling was extended at a time when this age group was especially large. In a short time, a large number of schools was built, and there was a lack of trained teachers for the new high schools. Teacher education expanded rapidly, with the result that the new institutions hired many young employees. The new teachers had often embraced a politically radical view of the school’s mission and rarely had any significant practical or academic experience. With so many newly recruited teachers, the foundation was laid for an environment of education and teacher training that was to be made permanent. Many of the people who came into the environment in the 1970s have now retired, but as supervisors they trained their successors who often took on their values. The most obvious example of this trend is the teacher training college in Stockholm, which was created in the 1950s and for decades was the darling of the Social Democrat government. It illustrates that the teacher training colleges were seen as an important channel to bring the party’s ideology to the state. When finally the complaints against the politicised environment became too strong, the teacher training college in Stockholm was rescued for a few years by passing it over to the University of Stockholm. It is unclear whether any major changes occurred to the operation itself, as part of the staff moved with it. Names associated with teacher training in Stockholm are the former principal, Ingrid Carlgren, and professor of education, Bengt-Erik Andersson – the latter the author of a book with the telling title Explode School! (1999). The municipalisation of school in 1989 was a repeat of the introduction of compulsory education. The responsible school minister, Goran Persson, was with the Left and the teachers union and disregarded the teachers. In 1999, Sweden introduced a new teacher education that sought to create standardised teachers – a follow-up to the standardised school idea. All teachers should be seen first and foremost as teachers, and they would train together during part of training and later specialise. The eligibility requirements were loosened. A further reform would go further in the coordination of high-school vocational and academic programmes, but was never implemented before the change of government in 2006.

The research world that has evolved in parallel with school decisions and expansion of teacher training colleges is characterised by politics, investigation and research belonging to a single environment. As Gunnar Richardson says in his famous book about Swedish school history, government investigations right from the 1950s have been connected with sometimes as many as 140 or 150 experts. This means that there can hardly have been a university teacher who was not involved in the studies that formed the basis for the reforms mentioned above. The amount of study material was always huge and covered between 2,000 and 5,000 pages. A gigantic amount of data was regularly presented before the decision. But, as Richardson points out, then follow-up of decisions was called for in their absence. Today, when reading veteran Sixten Marklund’s book Our School from 1974 on Swedish school reforms one gets a flavour of the 1960s and 70s. The reading experience can be compared to seeing string bookshelves or hearing the anthem to C G Hammarlund’s programme, Sweden’s Car Radio. Marklund does not question for a moment that the changes have been beneficial. He dismisses complaints about declining quality by saying that survey results are never value-free. It is mentioned in passing that the school politics are just politics and nothing else. When one reads the text with hindsight, a reaction can be to want accountability. But who will be accountable for decisions that appear to be collective? Neither Marklund nor Richardson refers to individual researchers. Instead, the reforms are presented as political and research-based collective consensus decisions. In Marklund’s book, we can see how the problems, with which we are now grappling, were created. When numerical grades were introduced in the 1960s the term ‘approved’ was done away with, thereby laying the foundation that we now have with students at secondary level having skills that match primary level. The last high-school graduation was in 1968 and consequently the last standardised rating that we have had in the form of exam papers. Against this background, no wonder rating levels now vary as strongly as they do. What is special about 1960s’ and 70s’ alliance between politicians and radical educators was that the new teachers had a monopoly on the public area of ??teacher training because the state decided that the state teacher was the only one that could give ‘permission’. The state has also exercised a de facto monopoly on research in education by awarding so-called ‘sector funds’, where research applications that have been granted support give legitimacy to the policies that the state wished to pursue. This dual monopoly has meant that the enterprise has not had to take criticism. All the people talking about Swedish education agree that the investigative world, the political world and the academic educational world go together. People also go in and out of different roles, and those who have had contact with schools in the last few decades will recognise names like Torsten Husén, Urban Dahllöf, Jonas Orring, Sixten Marklund and Ulf P. Lundgren and associate Kjell Härnqvist with the concept of the ‘talent pool’, Tomas Kroksmark with didactics, Tomas Englund, with syllabuses, Ference Marton with phenomenography and Roger Säljö with social constructivism. Staffan Selander’s anthology of 1992 with articles from Research on Education, is reminiscent of the names that have dominated the field. An article from 1976 is especially worth reading today, namely the one by Staf Callewaert and Daniel Kallós with criticism from the left side of progressive liberalism, which is presented as ”pink scales” consisting more of buzzwords than of analysis. The approaches discussed are: dialogue pedagogy, democratic pedagogy, liberating pedagogy, development-orientated pedagogy, creative pedagogy, and project-based and problem-based pedagogies.

Some of the listed professors have changed over time without, however, having changed their general direction. Donald Broady is less radical today and is interested in evaluating the quality of educational research. (Apparently the work is keeping up to standard.) A professor who also has embarked on a new direction is Ference Marton, who is studying why Chinese education gets such good results. Kjell Härnqvist has nuanced his claims about the talent pool. Many famous names have now reached retirement age, but the progressive realists are still active and appear, among others, under the name The Teacher Training Convention to protest against the reorganisation of the bourgeois alliance. Reforms are needed, however, today. Sweden had a stable system with skilled teachers when the earlier period of reform began in the 1960s, which explains why the impact of the changes was not felt immediately. In the 1980s and 90s there was an increased awareness of a crisis, but it was not until international comparisons broke through that the public and politicians woke up. The negative results for Sweden are now coming in quick succession. The international knowledge evaluation, PISA, in 2009 showed that Sweden stood out because the results fell in all the surveyed areas. The well-known TIMSS study in mathematics and science in 2007 noted that no other country, except Bulgaria, has lost as much as Sweden. The public now understands that Sweden has declining earnings. But few realise, however, that Sweden has also made a huge investment in research on teaching. In Selander’s anthology, it states that between 1967 and 1974, 770 scientific papers on education were published in Sweden; the production of teaching colleges are not counted, only independent university institutions. Between 1944 and 1980, 213 doctoral dissertations in education were completed; now, around 100 are produced each year. Sweden today has over one hundred professors of pedagogy, doctoral students in Sweden may now get full-time pay for four years, and every dissertation represents an investment of between one and two million Swedish kronor for taxpayers. The only plausible reason why society is investing so heavily is that it wants to improve education for children and young people. University teachers usually answer evasively when asked about the practical application of their results but, if the educational research does not improve school results, taxpayers have no reason to fund an operation of this magnitude.

One explanation for the educational research not leading to better school results is that theses avoided topics that might have conflicted with the mandatory policy line. Also, the theses were sometimes based on so few subjects that general conclusions could not be drawn. The studied periods were often short, especially taking into account the complexity of the behaviour to be studied. Some theses were about political and social attitudes related to class, gender and ethnicity rather than about ways of studying. There are few treatises that systematically compare different ways of teaching to see which method is most successful. A defender of the subject of pedagogy might say that education goes beyond the school. At an administrative level, pedagogy is classified under science education (it was seen as important that the word science should be included, as it gives prestige). Many university teachers are also trying to get away from the practical connection to the school. One does not want to see the subject as an aid to vocational training, but would rather connect to a world of social scientific theory, much like the subject of sociology. How do successful countries do it? In East Asian countries like Japan and China they work very practically in terms of school improvement. The teachers work together to improve the results from year to year. There are ‘first teachers’ or ‘master teachers’, who give demonstration lessons, which are now recorded on video. East Asian schools often have larger groups and cheaper textbooks and their teachers shorter training. Yet their schools often perform better than Swedish ones. Disruptive or lazy students are not tolerated. Finland also maintains order in schools and recruits intelligent and ambitious teachers. Research on education often has a practical focus. A typical topic might be: is the method X or method Y more successful when it comes to teaching a particular section of chemistry in grade 8? At training schools, future teachers study how skilled teachers work. Both East Asia and Finland focus on improving the learning of subject knowledge. Despite the Alliance’s reforms, it is basically the same people who were previously responsible for teacher training and leading research in pedagogy. The political-educational environment is thus almost unchanged. What has happened to the teaching profession can be described as ‘proletarianisation’, as teacher salaries in Sweden are nowadays strikingly low compared to the duration of training. For decades, the state has not defended the teacher’s authority in the classroom. It is therefore hardly surprising that the teaching profession is largely disregarded by intelligent and educated students – the very people that the system needs to recruit. Among other things, the proportion of children to teachers has significantly decreased among student teachers. What has happened to recruitment to the profession was reflected by Jan Sjunnesson in an article in Educational Research in 2011. The new student teachers are women from families with low cultural capital. They have remarkably poor school performance. The decision to apply for teacher training may be a consequence of them finding it difficult to get into other courses. In teacher education, they encounter an environment that still cites the theorists mentioned, who claim that the community and the school are oppressive. They are taught to analyse school with the concepts of class, gender and ethnicity. The result is, as Sjunnesson says, a total confusion of these theoretically and linguistically weak students. I want to close with a personal anecdote related to teacher education in Gothenburg in the early 1970s. My fellow students asked me, as course representative in the college, to ask what a teacher should do in a high-school class in the suburbs if students refused to comply with his or her instructions. Apparently, it was perceived as an inappropriate question, but after an embarrassing silence one of university teachers answered: ”A well-prepared lesson never fails.” Because every teacher knows that this is an absurd answer, it reveals that when it comes to a clash between the utopian image of teaching and the reality, the teacher training colleges prefer utopia.

Inger Enkvist

Professor emerita i spanska vid Lunds universitet.

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